Firefighters finish putting out a fire at a home for the elderly and disabled in the town of Alsunga, Latvia, on Friday.
updated 2/23/2007 7:00:05 PM ET 2007-02-24T00:00:05

Faulty electrical wiring may have sparked a catastrophic fire that raced through a home for the disabled in western Latvia on Friday, leaving 25 people dead or missing, rescuers said.

By Friday evening, rescue workers had pulled 20 bodies from the badly charred three-story building in Alsunga, a town about 110 miles west of Riga, the capital. Five others were missing and presumed dead, said Inese Veisa of the State Fire and Rescue Service.

Some 90 people, most of them mentally or physically disabled, were inside the 19th-century brick manor when the fire broke out just after midnight Friday, rescue officials said. At least five of the survivors sustained serious burns.

Pictures from the scene showed thick gray smoke rolling out of the windows as firefighters cleared debris from rooms filled with smoldering mattresses.

Their efforts to put out the blaze were hampered by the extreme cold, with temperatures reaching minus 13 degrees, freezing the water inside fire hoses.

Veisa said it was unlikely more survivors would be found amid the debris.

The fire was the deadliest in Latvia's recent history, rescue service director Ainars Pencis told the Leta news agency.

Preliminary evidence suggested the fire was caused by a short-circuit in the electrical wiring on the third floor, said Yuri Kislats, the deputy chief of the rescue service.

The electrical system may have overloaded, he said, as patients switched on electrical heaters to stay warm.

Alternately, investigators said, the fire might have been caused by someone smoking in bed. Due to the freezing temperatures residents were reluctant to smoke outdoors, as required.

The local prosecutor has opened a criminal investigation into the cause of the tragedy, Latvia's SWH radio reported.

"The tragedy is unspeakable," said Dagnija Stake, Latvia's welfare minister.

The manor, built in 1890 was turned into a convalescent home in 1956. Agrita Groze, deputy state secretary of the Welfare Ministry, said the building, including its electrical wiring, passed an inspection last year.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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